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When Violence Overcame a Freedom Struggle

This is the first of three excerpts from Forward staff writer Gal Beckerman’s new book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle To Save Soviet Jewry,” published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on September 23.

Before Meir Kahane became the right-wing extremist banned by the Israeli Parliament for racism, he was a rabble-rousing and clean-shaven rabbi in New York City. Through his Jewish Defense League, he made Soviet Jewry the focus of his unique brand of 1960s activism — emulating both the flamboyancy of the Yippies and the aggression of the Black Panthers and bringing unprecedented attention to the movement. But then, one bomb changed everything.

It started with Molotov cocktails. As the ’60s curdled into the ’70s, the teenage boys of Meir Kahane’s Jewish Defense League, like many other disaffected and angry young men of the time, found the flash and heat of violence irresistible. Dressing up in their bar mitzvah suits to lob balloons filled with chicken blood at the ballerinas of the touring Bolshoi didn’t cut it anymore. They began building crude pipe bombs and exploding them at the bottom of a drained pool at Kahane’s summer camp in the Catskills. These were the kind of bombs they then placed in the doorways of the Aeroflot and Intourist offices in Manhattan in the fall of 1970, causing a minor diplomatic crisis between the superpowers. The informers and undercover police officers that swelled the ranks of the JDL were warning their superiors that something bigger and more dangerous was in the works. One officer from the NYPD’s intelligence unit who had infiltrated the group gained access to their cache of weapons, which were hidden in closets all over Brooklyn. The JDL had enough shotguns and rifles to arm a small militia.

The narcissistic, theatrical, publicity-hungry rabbi seemed barely able to control the resentful young men, many from dysfunctional backgrounds, who swam around him like parasitic fish. His office on Fifth Avenue was a reflection of the chaos — a jumble of mismatched desks and tables, all piled high with unopened bills, placards, old newspapers, and rolls of duct tape. Over Kahane’s desk was scrawled “Office of the Reb,” next to a photo of the bespectacled and jug-eared Vladimir Jabotinsky. But out of the emotions he had unleashed — most of his followers were studies in Jewish inferiority complex — Kahane had built an organization that claimed 7,000 members. Where so many others had floundered, he had found a simple and direct response to the problem of Soviet Jewry: Never Again. The two-word slogan perfectly captured the allure Kahane held for American Jews: It simultaneously stirred the memory of their historic helplessness and unblinkingly asserted a newfound strength.

His simple doctrine of confrontation also resonated at a moment when the shifting politics of the Cold War were presenting a new challenge for Soviet Jewry activists. With a difficult re-election campaign ahead of him and the country convulsing with anti-Vietnam protests, President Richard Nixon was beginning to drop his Cold Warrior reputation and take on a new, more conciliatory approach towards the Soviets. [Driven largely by Henry Kissinger, his National Security Advisor, Nixon was trying to weave what Kissinger called “an intersecting web of interests” — increased trade, strategic arms limitation talks (SALT, as they were known), cultural and scientific exchanges. A scaled-down Cold War would allow the Soviets to shift resources away from defense and toward their growing economic problems. Nixon would have the leverage he needed to end the war in Vietnam and stabilize the United States after a decade of political and cultural revolution. But the warming trend, which became known as détente, presented a problem for Soviet Jewry activists. The belligerent anti-Communism of the last decade had at least provided a context for their cause. Détente, based purely on realpolitik, threatened to pave over the problems of Soviet Jews with a new amicability that would be blind to such moral questions as the right to emigrate.

Kahane, however, saw an opportunity. Nixon and Brezhnev clearly wanted something — namely, calm — and he could take that something away. As he told The New York Times in a long profile (testament in itself to his growing celebrity): “The most important thing to the Soviet Union at this moment is détente with the West. So what we are basically trying to do is give the Russians a hard enough time on something they want badly — and then trade with them: ‘Look, you want your détente, take your détente. Build your bridges. Pay us off. Give us 8,000 Jews, 10,000 Jews, 12,000 Jews….’ How does the U.S. come into this? The U.S. wants exactly the same thing right now — a détente. What we want the president and the Soviets to know is it doesn’t take much to plunge the world into a terrible, terrible crisis.” How exactly did he intend to get his message to Russian and American leaders? By doing, as he put it, “outrageous things.”

Sol Hurok, the last of the New York impresarios, stepped out of his car and into his Midtown office at 9:30 on the morning of January 26, 1972. Practically a New York institution, Hurok had been putting up money for European artists to tour America ever since World War I, when his concerts had filled the New York Hippodrome on Sundays. He’d discovered Marian Anderson in 1935 and represented Arthur Rubenstein throughout most of his career. With his gold- or silver-headed cane (depending on the occasion), horn-rimmed glasses and black slouch hat, Hurok could be seen and heard at the back of concert halls most nights. Over the years his “Sol Hurok Presents” had become particularly well known for its Soviet acts. Even during chilly periods in the Cold War, Hurok, born Solomon Isaievich in a town not far from Kharkov, found a way to get Soviet performers into the United States. From the Kirov to the Igor Moiseyev Ballet Company, Hurok knew them all and took delight in the company of testy ballerinas and musicians. The pinnacle of his career came in 1959 when he finally brought over the Bolshoi Ballet (something he would do three more times over the next decade) and rented a three-room suite for the prima ballerina Galina Ulanova, filling its refrigerator with caviar and champagne.

For Kahane, there was no greater domestic enemy than Hurok. Speaking at a press conference at the Overseas Press Club in February of 1970, just as he was gaining attention, Kahane described Hurok as a modern-day Shylock, a man “whose appetite for profits leads him to abandon his obligations as a human and his loyalties as a Jew.” In the past year, hardly a single Soviet performer had mounted a stage without some JDL-organized incident. That winter, to Hurok’s great disappointment, the Kremlin canceled a planned tour by the Bolshoi.

But Hurok was in a good mood that January morning, swathed in a large brown fur coat with a Russian fur hat on his head, his cane tapping the ground in front of him. The night before, Vladimir Ashkenazy, the famous young pianist, had performed at Carnegie Hall. The son of a Jewish father who defected to England in the early 1960s, Ashkenazy had protested on behalf of Soviet Jews and had elicited a JDL promise not to disrupt the evening with bottles of ammonia or scurrying mice.

A few minutes after Hurok arrived at his office on the 20th floor, two young men walked into the office’s reception area, one of them carrying a suitcase. They asked about tickets to a performance by a dance group from Kiev, sat down, placed the suitcase on the floor, got up, and left. A few seconds later, a small incendiary bomb in the suitcase went off, igniting a purplish flare and setting a nearby couch on fire. The heat of the blast was so strong that all the typewriters in the reception area melted, and the nails holding up framed photos of Russian performers bent in two. The area quickly filled with thick black smoke. The 14 people in the office, including Hurok, a few secretaries, and some maintenance workers, began running in a panic toward the back rooms, but this only trapped them. Soon black plumes engulfed the entire floor. One of the men ran to Hurok’s office, grabbed a chair, and smashed the window that looked out on the Avenue of the Americas. He started screaming for help into the cold morning air. Hurok lay on the floor, still in his furs. In the next room, three secretaries huddled together on the ground trying to escape the smoke. They too tried to break a window, but weren’t strong enough to shatter it. Crying and frightened, they all passed out within minutes. Afterward, lying in a bed in Roosevelt Hospital, one of the secretaries, Myra Armstrong, described the panic: “We were scared stiff. Smoke was coming in the ventilators. Virginia said, ‘It’s all right; somebody will come for us.’ Iris was real frightened. I can’t remember what she said, but she was absolutely still after a while.”

Iris was Iris Kones, a 27-year-old Jewish secretary from Long Island. After the firefighters arrived and put out the flames with water cannons, she was discovered lying dead on the office floor. Thirteen other people required hospitalization, including Hurok. He was carried out on a chair with his fur hat still on his head, his brown coat spread across him like a blanket and pulled up over his nose, only his horn-rimmed glasses showing.

The attack on Hurok’s office was one of two that took place simultaneously that morning (the other, at Columbia Artists Management, injured no one). In phone calls an hour later to a few news services the words “Never again!” were yelled. Kahane, in Jerusalem, claimed he had nothing to do with the attack. And maybe he didn’t. But he had inveighed against Hurok for years, painting him as an enemy of the Jewish people. And it was Kahane who promoted a culture of violence in the JDL. It was only a matter of time before something like this happened. Reached by phone in Israel, he sounded sincerely shocked that a Jewish woman had died. “I think the people who did this are insane,” he said. “What else can I say?”

The news that an innocent woman had been killed and that Kahane was responsible — however indirectly — shook many people in the Jewish community, some of whom had looked at JDL members as mischief-makers but not murderers. A New York Times editorial grouped the Hurok bombing with other recent JDL actions and wrote that “these firebombings fit a terrible pattern of mad violence that has shown no regard for innocent life, a violence wholly alien to every decent impulse.” The FBI and the city’s police began a massive operation to find the bombers.

For days after the bombing, the papers were full of stories that painted the JDL and Kahane as responsible for the death of Iris Kones. As if this publicity weren’t bad enough, Yevgeny Yevtushenko also happened to be in New York during the bombing and announced that he was going to write a poem about it. The Russian poet, whose “Babi Yar” had brought international attention to the issue of Soviet anti-Semitism, was about to depart on a cross-country tour. The Soviet leadership continued to indulge his occasional dissent because he generally toed the line. When he’d heard about the explosion, Yevtushenko saw an opportunity to please the KGB minders who were accompanying him on his trip. He asked to see Hurok’s office so he could observe the damage firsthand. That afternoon, the blond-haired, high-cheekboned Yevtushenko walked solemnly through the soot-covered rooms. At one point he stopped to clear the ash off a black-and-white photo of Feodor Chaliapin, a Russian singer and the first performer Hurok had brought to America, nearly 50 years before. It was after this 20-minute visit that Yevtushenko told the press, through his translator, that a poem about the incident was slowly writing itself in his mind.

The following night, Yevtushenko was slated to give a reading at Felt Forum in Madison Square Garden. It was sold out, with 5,000 people in attendance. Eugene McCarthy, once again a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, was present to read his own poetry; Allen Ginsburg and James Dickey were there, and both read translations of Yevtushenko’s work. The Russian himself appeared on the stage in blue jeans and a turtleneck and stood framed by a white spotlight. He told the audience that before he read from his published work, he wanted to recite a poem he had written the night before, dedicated to Iris Kones. He said it was a poem protesting those who were trying to prevent cultural exchange. He unfolded a page that had been stuffed into his pocket and read the title, “Bombs for Balalaikas”:

Poor Iris,
victim of the age,
you’ve fallen,
Jewish girl suffocated by smoke,
as though in a Nazi gas chamber.
It’s hard to vent out poisoned air.

Damn you, servants of hell
who seek coexistence between peoples
by building bridges of cadavers.

The poem, which was published in the Soviet newspaper Izvestia days later, went on to describe the Hurok offices as having the “stench of Auschwitz.” It was at this moment, when a Soviet poet effectively used Kahane’s own Holocaust rhetoric against him, that the rabbi lost all credibility — and along with it, the power to dictate the direction of the Soviet Jewry movement in America.

Contact Gal Beckerman at [email protected]

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